To Christians Starting College In Fall: A Letter From A College Professor

Dear Students,

A list of things you ought to know from the fellow believer who stands at the front of the classroom:

1. Do your best in class.  Want to know the quickest way to lose your professor’s respect?  Skip classes.  Forget homework.  Don’t read the instructions.  Email to ask her things she already announced.  Don’t pay attention.  Text during lecture.  Neglect to buy books.  Come up with lies and flimsy excuses to excuse your lack of effort.

As a believer, you are called to excellence.  Live it, so that “those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (Titus 2:8).  This goes for every class, club, or activity you engage in.  I will side-eye you if you turn in less than your personal best.  Jesus knows both of us, but he did not command me to give you As.

2. Find a local community of believers. If you’re a commuter, then you’ll be sticking with your own church.  But if you’re far from home, find a Christian campus organization that suits you – there are a lot of them and they reach out to multiple Christian traditions.  If that doesn’t suit you, hunt out a dorm Bible study.  Or hey, start your own.  And find a new church in your area.  It all seems like a hassle and can be intimidating when you don’t know anyone, but when you’re in crisis, you need a community of local believers who can support you and pray for you and keep you growing.

3. Do not be terrified of difference.  You can make friends with, and be kind to, non-believers. If you are a Christian who believes in evangelism and you only know Christians, your ministry will die on the vine.  You will meet a lot of different sorts of people in college.  Not all of them will be believers.  Some of them will believe things you disagree with.  God commands you to love them anyway, to be kind to them, and to live a life of integrity and grace around them.

4. Avoid drive-by evangelism.  At times when I was a student in college I viewed the students around me as a giant pool of potential converts.  I said hi to them and bye to them and asked about their families and interests long enough to become friends and get them in the door of a local Christian organization where, God willing, they’d get saved.  And then after that I’d only reach out to them to remind them of our next meeting – at least until another Christian called me out on it.  Evangelism is not “being nice to people until they can hear the message and respond.” It is “living the message to people no matter what their response is.”  Those who don’t become Christians – or who do and with whom you have “finished” the work of evangelism – still need your influence, your grace, and evidence of God’s love in their lives.  Remain faithful.

5. Get comfortable with your faith and get used to being questioned or criticized. In my classes, I teach a mix of students: atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, Jews, and atheists, so far.  Occasionally in class, a student will make a remark critical of Christians or Christianity.  My Christian students have one of three responses: a) they respond with kindness and a cool head, b) they become visibly angry and upset, and sometimes respond in wrath, or c) they look bewildered, confused, and on the precipice of existential crisis.  You? Strive to be choice a.  Always be choice a.

Please understand: people will criticize your faith.  And while sometimes a debate is good and helpful, it is impossible to answer every questioner and win every argument.  Whether you engage or not, stay calm. Be loving always. And don’t let those criticisms send you into a spiral of self-doubt.  Make sure you know in advance why you believe what you believe.  Be strong in it.  Be comfortable not having an answer to every question.  If you think having your faith questioned is going to shatter you, then get to work changing that.  Root your convictions in deep ground.  Go read Scripture.  Read C.S. Lewis and Ravi Zacharias and Philip Yancey.  Make yourself unshakable.  Make it a mission not to “win” every debate (you won’t) but to, in all interactions, convey the essence of Christ.

6. Embrace fellow believers of multiple Christian traditions.  My Christian friends and I were a motley crew of denominations: there was my hallmate who was non-denominational and liked to dance in front of the altar for Jesus, some girls from a denomination who forbade women to wear pants, a couple of Catholics and one Episcopalian mom, a whole slew of Methodists and more than a few Presbyterians. Oh, and Baptists of every stripe. Don’t quibble over inter-denominational issues.  You do you.  Let others be themselves.  Embrace what you have in common.

7. Remember you are not alone. College is tough and fun and exhilarating and confusing.  You’re on your own, and that is both frightening and intimidating.  And as a Christian, it’s easy to worry that you will be alone.  But you are not alone.  You will find friends.  You will find fellow believers, too, with whom to worship and grow.  Some of them will sit beside you in your classes.  Others will be on staff in the registrar’s office, or cleaning the halls.  Some will be hanging out in the posh administrative offices.

And some of us are standing in the classrooms, teaching you.

I can’t single you out among my students and whisper, “Pssst, I’m a Christian, too, and I’m praying for you!” Doing so would open me to accusations of favoritism or soft grading; it would introduce a dynamic into the classroom that would interrupt the equality I strive to create in it.  But I see you.  When you say, with your shaking voice, that you believe in Jesus, I hear you. When you work your hardest on a paper, no matter what the grade is, I am proud of you.  When I see you respond to critical comments about your faith with serenity and grace and unwavering faith, my heart swells with love for you.

I pray for you, both while you are in my class and after you leave, after you disappear into the wide sea of students whom I have taught.  I hope and expect great things for you.  And my biggest wish, fellow servant, is that God would use this time in your life to transform you more and more into the person He wishes you to be.

What joy, what hope, what peace is yours. Be strong in faith.  Rejoice!

You are loved.

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